The Cable News Afterlife

Symone Sanders
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty
Dylan Byers
January 12, 2022

The media industry is always going through stages of upheaval and restructuring, especially in the fallow period after a presidential election, when cable news networks recalibrate their politics and loose-in-the-saddle talent begin to make moves. Nevertheless, the three large cable news networks made programming announcements of varying importance and magnitude this week that struck me as harbingers for the future of each network, and thus of American television news itself. 

Fox News tapped Jesse Watters, the infamous highly-coiffured ambush interviewer-turned-gleeful mocker of liberals on The Five, to serve as host of its pivotal 7 p.m. hour. Meanwhile, MSNBC announced that Democratic strategist Symone Sanders, a former Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris advisor, would host a weekend program on the network’s linear channel and anchor another show on one of its streaming services. And CNN, which has been rolling out new CNN+ shows at an increasingly rapid clip, added NPR alum Audie Cornish to a streaming roster that will be populated as much with cooking and travel shows hosted by the likes of Alison Roman and Eva Longoria as with hard news programs hosted by the likes of Chris Wallace and Kate Bolduan.

Each move follows an established pattern: Fox News, an unabashedly right-wing network (albeit with many independent and even Democratic viewers), is doubling down on its very successful strategy of conservative and anti-liberal programming; MSNBC, an unabashedly left-wing network, is doubling down on its less-proven strategy of progressive and anti-conservative programming; and somewhere closer to the middle, though still to the left of center, CNN is demonstrating that alongside its recent anti-Trump tenor it maintains a commitment to journalism and lifestyle programming that appeals to a well-educated liberal elite. (The New York Times, by the way, has largely charted this path—demonstrating through Cooking, Games, Serial, Wirecutter and, most recently, its $550 million acquisition of The Athletic, that lifestyle content converts in a paid ecosystem.) 

But while none of this is terribly surprising, it got me thinking—and talking to cable news executives and other insiders—about how these varying strategies will play out in the years ahead, particularly as these networks start to shift their economic model toward streaming. On the business side, each of these networks have far more in common than their politics suggest.

We are, after all, at the gradual beginning of what is likely to be a seismic shift. It’s my belief, and that of many cable news executives I talk to, that within the next five years the linear versions of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN will be available on streaming platforms, thereby effectively merging their current OTT offerings—Fox Nation, NBC News Now (et. al), and CNN+, respectively—with their linear products. Industrial logic dictates that each network’s linear and streaming programs inevitably will become bedfellows in one package direct-to-consumer offering, which in the case of MSNBC and CNN will be part of larger services—Peacock and a soon-to-be-combined HBO Max/Discovery+, respectively. 

When that unification happens, the strongest programming from the linear and streaming sides will live under one roof, while redundancies—MSNBC dayside and NBC News Now dayside, for instance—will be streamlined. Layoffs, in addition to new opportunities, seem inevitable. But these latest personnel rumblings portend a great deal about the future prospects of each network. Here’s what I’m hearing from my sources.

Murdoch’s Streaming Certainty

Fox News is an anomaly in that it is one of the most successful assets in linear television—the top-rated cable network, even over ESPN, for six years in a row—and also the most toxic. It has a massive audience of loyal fans that MSNBC and CNN can only dream of, and yet none of the major media companies want it in their portfolio because of its right-wing politics and its embrace of divisive rhetoric and misinformation. 

It is also, increasingly, a risk for blue chip advertisers who face potential reputational damage every time they get in front of Fox’s audience. (Among the biggest advertisers on Fox News last year, apart from Fox itself, were Liberty Mutual, two supplements companies, a mortgage lender, and MyPillow—the Mike Lindell-owned company that supports various far-right causes, including Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.) At the same time, the network commands unparalleled loyalty among viewers. It is therefore destined to compete in streaming as a stand-alone offering—under Fox Corp., or some other relatively small owner—rather than part of a major mainstream offering like Peacock or HBO Max.

Is that a problem? It would be for MSNBC or CNN, but it’s not necessarily a problem for Fox, because Fox News is more than a television network. Fox News functions as the Republican party’s bully pulpit, the most influential media outlet among conservatives, and the intellectual (or anti-intellectual) center for the right. So long as it maintains this position in American politics and culture, it can continue to be a highly lucrative business on streaming, especially once the vast majority of Americans have made the jump to OTT. When Fox fans make that jump, they will find a whole slew of non-news programming on Fox Nation—historical documentaries, true crime shows, bible study guides, etc.—that will only increase the value proposition of a Fox News subscription and make it a more integral part of their lives.

The MSNBC-NBC News Singularity

NBC News is currently pursuing a three-pronged streaming strategy on Peacock: hard news at NBC News Now, progressive opinion at The Choice from MSNBC (where Symone Sanders’ show will live), and lifestyle programming at Today All Day. To date, these largely look like junior varsity versions of their linear counterparts—seat warmers for a day when NBC News, MSNBC and the Today show make the jump to streaming. In the meantime, NBC executives are hoping that these services will provide cord-cutters with substitutes for the linear offerings that will endear them to the NBC brand. 

There’s a certain logic to this. If you’ve cut the cord, News Now is (for now) the only place you can go to get a traditional hard news offering that mirrors the linear experience—and it has the added benefit of being free. But this strategy rests on the assumption that cord-cutters want a cable news experience on a digital feed, and, given the extremely small audience numbers for cable news dayside programming, I’m not sure how big that demand is outside of days like November 3 or January 6. The company faces similar challenges on the opinion side because, unlike Fox News on the right, MSNBC is not the intellectual center for the left. It competes for the left’s intellectual market share with all manner of media outlets—The New York Times and The Washington Post, of course, but also The Atlantic and The New Yorker, CNN and NPR, etc., etc. 

When NBC’s linear and streaming offerings coalesce at Peacock, years down the line, there will still be significant value in the hard news programming, particularly because Peacock and HBO Max will be the only major streamers with a dedicated 24-hour news offering. (As I’ve written before, Netflix, Amazon and Apple have no appetite for cable news-style programming.) But it’s an open question whether these offerings will drive enough advertising and subscription revenue to make up for the losses NBC endures on the linear side as cable subscribers drop off, or whether they’ll have to be underwritten by the revenue from Peacock’s entertainment and sports programming.

CNN’s Soft-Focus Future

CNN has pursued a decidedly different streaming strategy than NBC. Rather than merely imitating the cable news format, it is investing heavily in lifestyle programming—Alison Roman’s cooking show, Eva Longoria’s travel series in Mexico, etc—that it will feature alongside 8 to 10 hours of live daily news content (for a price of $5 a month). In short, CNN is refuting NBC’s theory of the case—that there’s a meaningful, consistent audience for cable news on streaming—and instead betting that it can drive more subscriptions with non-fiction programming that will slide quite nicely into CNN’s future home on the combined HBO Max/Discovery+. The hard news will still be there when you need it, but in the meantime there will be a broader content offering. 

Even more so than NBC News, CNN’s primary value to HBO Max/Discovery+ will come from its hard news offering. It remains the only global 24-hour television news network, with the ability to go live from anywhere around the world the moment a bomb goes off or an election is contested, and people who want access to that coverage will therefore likely gravitate to HBO Max/Discovery+ when considering their streaming options. But as a holdover on the slow transition from linear to streaming, CNN is at least providing additional value, and original programming that is likely to garner some attention.

As my partner William D. Cohan has noted, the shouting matches and high-pitched chyrons of cable news belie their eagle-eyed strategic birth. Back in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, a team of executives at GE, led by C.E.O. Jack Welch and his protégé, David Zaslav, envisioned that the economic action was moving away from the broad avenues of linear to the affinity-based, niche, entrenched world of cable. The two, among other talented executives, created CNBC and MSNBC as part of this epiphany. It was one of the biggest supernovas of the era, alongside Ted Turner’s now-obvious but then-prescient vision for a 24/7 news channel, in addition to Murdoch and Diller’s Fox innovations.

Perhaps it is just the nature of life that a business built on disruption found itself, a generation later, flat-footed in the maw of overwhelming market transformation. But change happens both slowly and all at once. And it will be interesting to follow the more minuscule iterations that befall the industry as it shape-shifts. Top stars like Joe Scarborough will always be able to command extraordinary salaries, but an entire tier of mid-priced talent may depart the business, as happened in sports media years ago. Meanwhile, the most creative executives will be lured elsewhere, too, and may be tempted to partake in growing industries rather than a transitioning one. These early years will be defined by trial-and-error style programming—the misses of which will lead to much cynicism and schadenfreude, just as early critiques of Lillyhammer mistook Netflix’s early forays as misguided failures.

Change in the media business often comes down to around-the-corner seeing executives coaxing expensive talent to try seeing the future their way, and then compromising when the agent screams or their hand gets slapped. But the ratings are plateauing at an unmistakable rate on linear, and new OTT behaviors are forming at an unprecedented clip. The latest series of personnel moves across the media chessboard suggest the direction, if not the velocity, with which the industry is moving. There will be many more to come.